“Rhea Dillon: An Alterable Terrain,” the current installment of Tate Britain’s “Art Now” series (on view through January 1, 2024), features new work by a second-generation British-Jamaican artist who resides in South London. Dillon, whose multidisciplinary practice spans painting, sculpture, filmmaking, writing, and poetry, first received recognition while she was still studying fashion communication at Central Saint Martins. In addition to her live performances, two films catapulted her onto the art world radar: Process (2018)), an exploration of the particularities and politics of afro upkeep (produced in conjunction with the digital video platform NOWNESS), and The Name I Call Myself (2019), a layered and personal consideration of those who identify as LGBTQ+ within the Black British community.
Metaphorical storytelling lies at the core of Dillon’s work, and in “An Alterable Terrain,” she applies that approach to sculpture, overlaying expressive narrative onto the language of minimal abstraction. According to Tate Britain, these allusive, conceptual forms explore the foundational role that “Black women’s physical, reproductive and intellectual labour has played in the history of the British Empire.” Sparsely arranged in the gallery, the six works—which employ personally resonant materials such as crystal plates cast in soap, molasses, and the scent of sweat; dried calabashes collected from Jamaica; and a net curtain like the one in her Jamaica-born grandmother’s house—are intended to signify fragments of an anamorphous female body, evoking the eyes, mouth, soul, reproductive organs, hands, feet, and lungs. For Dillon, who approached the gallery space as a container for the body, its roof and rafters echoing an overturned ship’s hull, these visual codes mesh with those of a slave ship, recalling histories tethered to the experiences of the transnational Black diaspora.
The most striking piece in the show is An Unholy Trinity (the) Imaginary, Symbolic and Real (2022). The tops of three seamlessly connected barrels reveal perfectly interlinked circles resembling a Borromean knot. The warmth of the polished Sapele mahogany and the sleek verticality of the forms generate a commanding presence. Here, Dillon focuses on human subjectivity as addressed by Jacques Lacan, for whom subjectivity is the condition by which we understand the world around us; one becomes a subject through immersion into culture.
In Flagging Visions of Periphery (2023), Dillon refers to marginal, invisible aspects of Western society, inviting viewers to look through both sides of a window-like form in order to gain a clearer vision. The contrast between the linear black steel framing structure and the delicately patterned white curtain screen transmits the multifaceted nature of racial tensions still at play in British society.
Coming to terms with Dillon’s complex heritage is manifested in the minimal glass cube Placing Her Within An Alterable Terrain (2023). The height of the form is equivalent to that of an average woman. Placed in the center of the gallery, it conjures an imposing, ethereal presence with its transparent, geometrical surfaces connecting to the entire space. It is a container, but it contains nothing but air—an allusion to lungs and breath lost from imprisoned Black subjects.
Like much abstract work undergirded by specific ideas, Dillon’s is difficult to unravel without assistance from the descriptive wall labels accompanying each piece. Her strength as an artist seems to reside in narrative, as evidenced by her films and performances. When she enters the realm of abstract form, her distinctive objects almost disconnect from their message—and perhaps that is intentional. Fortunately an accompanying book showcasing Dillon’s writings along with other essays illuminates the links between her sculptures and their conceptual context.